Avner Dorman: When nerves are not solely your own, and understanding can come from others10:49, 13th January 2017
In his third blog, with two weeks to opening night, composer Avner Dorman returns to Karlsruhe for the beginning of full rehearsals for his new opera, Wahnfried
Well, I was supposed to go to Karlsruhe for more Wahnfried rehearsals earlier than this, but even the demands of an opera can’t override an illness, and unfortunately I was laid low for a couple of weeks and unable to travel. But now the time has arrived for me to return, and I’m excited to be going back. I also always feel nervous, and there’s no telling which of those emotions I’ll feel more each time! The opera house has sent me video footage of the first-act run-through. It’s incredible to see it all coming together. When I get there we’ll go more or less straight into full rehearsal. We’re approaching the final ten days of the production process.
I may be grappling with my own emotions and feelings, but at least opera is a collaborative process. It’s very different to writing orchestral pieces or chamber works or even something choral. The first thing that’s different is that you get this long lead-in, where the libretto is being developed, and I was involved in that. The librettists, Lutz Hübner & Sarah Nemitz (about whom perhaps more in another entry) wrote a synopsis and made an outline of the acts and the scenes and we discussed it all quite extensively and I was able to voice my musical ideas – that doesn’t always happen in opera-writing. When a composer is suddenly presented with materials that actually don’t lend themselves well to musical drama, that’s when the challenges get really big!
But writing a symphony, for instance, is a very internal and even lonely process. This was collaborative right down to the choice of voice types for each character. That’s one of the many instances where the conductor Justin Brown – Karlsruhe’s Music Director – was invaluable. He knows the singers in Karlsruhe (and we only have one singer who’s not drawn from the house’s own ensemble), and he knows voice types and that’s vital because one lyric baritone, say, will be very different to another lyric baritone.
As I look ahead to the coming days, to the end of the beginning, you might say, I remember the beginning of the beginning. The beginning of my contribution. Once I had the words, for the first eight months I was writing, just writing in my studio and not sharing it with anyone. Early on I focussed on rhythm and the concourse of the melodic line, I didn’t even get into the area of pitch for a while; I just needed to get a sense of the rhythms of the libretto. As I was writing and experimenting with different ideas I got to know these characters. What else were they doing that day? What did each have for breakfast? Spending that time with them, I built up a more complete picture and that helps you to create believable characters.
I researched about vocal inflections ad emotional expression – what is it that a voice does that makes us understand that it’s expressing anger, or sadness? Through all of these techniques I started to build a universe.
After those eight months I had four or five scenes written, if unfinished and unorchestrated. And I tentatively contacted Justin Brown because I knew that I needed some input on vocal ranges and singers’ strengths. I had no idea, for instance, how long a tenor could sing a certain note, or how long they could sustain a certain range (especially with the main character on stage for almost every scene). To say that Justin was helpful is an understatement. Right from the start he was extremely practical in his help – he would steer me to look at examples. He’d show me how Wagner resolved a similar issue, or how Puccini did it, and he would cite specific passages in their operas where I could find ideas for solutions, or guidance.
Justin was so excited and enthusiastic, and right from the beginning he started giving me musical feedback as well; he would tell me what he really liked and places where he felt a certain section was perhaps not needed (often I’d take his ideas, sometimes I’d fight my corner). He became someone off of whom I could truly bounce ideas. He was so positive and so brilliant that I felt less nervous about showing him the next scenes, and the next. I knew that I had someone I could show things to who could give me good feedback. I deeply trust his judgement and his taste. And he’s such a fantastic conductor! So this became a much more involved process than I’ve ever experienced with any conductor.
Then Justin began to share materials with the choir director and with some of the singers, and of course the librettists and the director Keith Warner (more on him another time, too!). It became a very extensive, and very collaborative experience. So now I remember all of this, as I head back to Karlsruhe and grapple with excitement and nerves. I can remind myself – the excitement doesn’t only apply to me, the nerves are not mine alone. We’re all working on this project, and I have a musical family with whom to share the experience.